Gareth Southgate spent many months leading up to this World Cup calling for more realistic expectations of his England team in light of recent tournament failings. It was a sensible and measured stance in keeping with the coachs level-headed tenure and won him much admiration. After today's record-breaking 6-1 win over Panama, however, Southgate will have his work cut out quashing the snowballing hype.
Two games into their campaign in Russia, England are already assured of a place in the last 16. With a keen efficiency they dismantled a poor Panama side, scoring five before half-time, and racked up their biggest ever victory at a major tournament. Three of the goals came from captain Harry Kane, who became only the third Englishman to score a World Cup hat-trick and now tops the scoring charts with five strikes. This campaign could hardly have started any better for Southgates men.
A nagging concern before this tournament had been Englands shortage of goals, having only scored more than two in a match once in Southgates near-two-year reign. That seems churlish now. Aside from Kanes two penalties and fortunate third – a Ruben Loftus-Cheek shot that ricocheted in off his heel – defender John Stones netted two headers and midfielder Jesse Lingard a terrific 20-yard effort that curled in off the underside of the bar. There could have been more, too.
Talking of England as genuine contenders for the trophy was to invite derision just days ago. While expectations should be grounded in the fact that they have not won a knockout game since Tony Blair was Prime Minister, it now at least merits discussion. That is in no small part down to Kane. His two nerveless penalties, both despatched into the top-left corner, underlined that England have as reliable a finisher as any team in Russia, a fact that could prove decisive in tighter matches later in the competition.
If Kane doesnt get you, Englands corners and free-kicks will. Both of Stoness goals resulted from set pieces: the first a powerful header from the same corner routine that undid Tunisia in the opening Group G fixture, and the second nodded in from close range after an elaborate routine involving Kieran Trippier, Jordan Henderson, Kane and Raheem Sterling. Including penalties, six of Englands eight goals so far have come from dead balls and they have looked dangerous every time the referee has whistled.
English optimism ought to be tempered by the acknowledgment that Panama were largely a disgrace. The Central American nation, playing at their first World Cup, appeared more intent on inflicting injury, manufacturing yellow or red cards for England players and finding new ways to disrupt the match than scoring. As such, conclusions are necessarily limited. Thursdays final group game against Belgium will decide who finishes top and is a more useful barometer.
Stones (far right) headed his first goal from a corner (Source: Getty)
It wasnt all good. Even in this most one-sided of contests, England still managed to concede – and to a 37-year-old substitute in Felipe Baloy. He slid in to convert Ricardo Avilas free-kick after being played onside by Harry Maguire and the Leicester defender had further moments of uncertainty. Better opponents may target the teams left flank, where he combines with Ashley Young. Kyle Walker, too, was sloppy at times, although he atoned with one excellent sliding interception.
In attack, Sterling was the least impressive of Southgates starting line-up. He should have scored with a header that led to Stoness second and speculation about his place in the side, under pressure from Marcus Rashford, seems likely to intensify in the days leading up to the Belgium game. Some rotation is likely and England may be forced into making other changes, with Trippier withdrawn and then promptly strapped up after suffering an apparent thigh injury.
Lingard scored the pick of England's goals with a curler from 20 yards (Source: Getty)
Englands Group G destiny is now largely in their own hands, although there is a chance that lots may have to be drawn to decide whether they or Belgium top the table. Should their fixture in Kaliningrad end in stalemate, the teams will have the same goal difference, goals scored and head-to-head record, meaning that hierarchy is determined by fair play record. England currently have one yellow card fewer, but were that to be equalled too then lots would come into play.
Despite the landmark triumph, Southgate declared himself dissatisfied with elements of Englands play. He highlighted a slow start and Panamas goal, adding: “I guess the bits in the middle were pretty good, but I am being hyper-critical.” Perhaps it was an attempt to rein in those expectations again. He has achieved much already but in a country so starved of tournament excitement, that task may be beyond him.